Updated June 2012
T. E. Lawrence to Frederic Manning
That would have been a pleasant letter to get, for the tallest author alive: and therefore many times pleasanter for me, who think myself no great shakes at writing, from one whose writing I so vainly admire. Your prose has a very definite and deliberate manner, which appeals to me, as most 'airs' do. Your poems have helped you to that concision and force. The best of poetry is all the clauses it leaves out, and that is why poets so often write such tough and nervy prose - or so I fancy.
Your remarks hit off very closely the obstacles that attended the delivery of The Seven Pillars. I was a rather clumsy novice at writing, facing what I felt to be a huge subject with hanging over me the political uncertainty of the Arab movement. We had promised them so much, and at the end wanted to give them so little. So for two years there was a dog fight, up and down the dirty passages of Downing St., and then all came out right - only the book was finished. It might have been happier, had I foreseen the clean ending. I wrote it in some stress and misery of mind.
The second complicity was my own moral standing. I had been so much of a free agent, repeatedly deciding what I (and others) should do: and I wasn't sure if my opportunity (or reality, as I called it) was really justified. Not morally justifiable. I could see it wasn't: but justified by the standard of Lombard St. and Pall Mall. By putting all the troubles and dilemmas on paper, I hoped to work out my path again, and satisfy myself how wrong, or how right, I had been.
So the book is the self-argument of a man who couldn't then see straight: and who now thinks that perhaps it did not matter: that seeing straight is only an illusion. We do these things in sheer vapidity of mind, not deliberately, not consciously even. To make out that we were reasoned cool minds, ruling our courses and contemporaries, is a vanity. Things happen, and we do our best to keep in the saddle.
After the Arab business I rather foreswore saddles. The R.A.F. is a socket in which I fit safely: after many tribulations, as you will discover if P.D. lets you read my Mint which describes how the Air Force rounds off its pegs to fit into their holes. Now-a-days my mind does not concern itself greatly with abstractions. Hence the red face and round belly and comfortable port. I think I am happier than most people.
What you say about the descriptive stuff slowing down the narrative pleases me, rather. I had suspected it. Descriptions shouldn't be more than a line or two. Only I was not really out to make a masterpiece (-or was I? I think I wanted to, and felt that I could not, and had not) and the sense of the country and atmosphere and climate and furniture of Arabia hung so tightly about me that I put too much of them into the story, in hopes that they would make it life-like. I wake up now, often, in Arabia: the place has stayed with me much more than the men and the deeds. Whenever a landscape or colour in England gets into me deeply, more often than not it is because something of it recalls Arabia. It was a tremendous country and I cared for it far more than I admired my role as a man of action. More acting than action, I fancy, there.
Your seeing Jahveh and the Baalim is of course what I was trying to convey. My two years taught me the inwardness of all Semitic history, from its beginning: and that includes Zeno and other unexpected persons. As for my harnessing to my go-cart the eternal force - well, no: I pushed my go-cart into the eternal stream, and so it went faster than the ones that are pushed cross-stream or up-stream. I did not believe finally in the Arab movement: but thought it necessary, in its time and place. It has justified itself hugely, since the war, too. So, even to a political or statesman, the conflict is measurable and significant. I am still puzzled as to how far the individual counts: a lot, I fancy, if he pushes the right way.
Joyce and his party try to 'present objects to the vision simply by enumerating' not all, indeed, but a careful selection of their qualities. I was at least as selective as Joyce, in intention. Only perhaps I didn't see, precisely enough, what was significant. I'm sorry about 'dolerite' and 'striated'... but these seemed easy enough, after one had thought of them. I tried not to be technical, unnecessarily.
'Slowing down the dramatic action' Yes: as I hinted, much of the dramatic action was very reluctantly put in. It felt cheap, then, and looks cheap now. I preferred Arabia when I wasn't in it, so to speak!
I'm so glad you didn't tear the letter up: because it has given me a great deal of innocent pleasure... or is the pleasure that would be vanity, if the recipient believed it earned, innocent?...
The first draft was not destroyed by me, but stolen from me; left behind in the refreshment room of Reading Station, and taken by some unknown! It was shorter, snappier, and more truthful than the present version, which was done from memory. I do not think it was franker and angrier, for I do not get angry much, and 1920 (the date of this text, in the main) was a worse year for me than 1919, the date of the first draft. My compromise with fate you will see happening gradually in 1922-23, as I settled into the R.A.F.; if you read The Mint. Here is the chronology:
1914-1918: the War
1919: Peace Conference: misery
1920-1921 (Aug): Dog fight in London with the British Government
1922: Eighteen months work with Winston Churchill settling the Middle East after my lights.
1922 (Aug)-193O: R.A.F.
It is exceedingly good of you to have taken all that trouble.
|Last revised:||2 February 2006|
T. E. Lawrence chronology
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset